herald

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Trinity physicist leads European team to predict dangerous solar storms

Shaun Bloomfield
Shaun Bloomfield

A SOLAR physicist from Trinity College is leading a European team of scientists that can accurately forecast solar storms that affect our everyday lives of Earth.

Dr Shaun Bloomfield, senior research fellow at Trinity, is the lead scientist of the Flare Likelihood and Region Eruption Forecasting (FLARECAST) consortium.The project also includes a number of other Trinity scientists and teams based at the UK Met Office and some of Europe's top universities and research institutes.

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The €2.5m project is funded by the European Commission through Horizon 2020, its €80m research and innovation fund to study the origins of solar storms and build an accurate solar storm forecasting service for Europe.

It is expected to accurately predict when solar storms are likely to occur and how big they will be.

Solar storms are caused by huge explosions of hot gas from the sun that have the potential to damage satellite electronics, interrupt radio communications and navigation systems, and even cause instability in electrical power distribution systems on Earth.

Dr Bloomfield said the project brings together European expertise in the areas of solar physics and artificial intelligence and neural networks with data-mining techniques to characterise the sources of solar storms, known as sunspots.

He said it would upgrade flare forecasting to unprecedented levels of precision.

Associate Professor in Physics at Trinity and fellow FLARECAST scientist, Dr Peter Gallagher said the new technology had many useful applications.

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From a tourist point of view, it will be able to predict the best times to view the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, which are caused by solar storms.

Solar storms can also affect global positioning systems (GPS) so accurate forecasting of the storms will be useful for military applications as well as for oil drilling that relies on GPS.

Dr Gallagher said solar storms could also affect power grids, as happened in Canada in 1989 when a huge part of the country was plunged into darkness following a storm.

Dr Gallagher added: "The project will also use state-of-the-art image-processing techniques and will provide a highly accurate, near real-time flare-forecasting service, which is the first of its kind in the world."

The service will be accessible to European and international space weather researchers.

hnews@herald.ie

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